Have you ever attended a public talk where the moderator or speaker invited audience members to ask questions afterwards? If you have, I bet you heard someone ask a question like this:
“Mr. Senator, I am a longstanding member of the National Association of People Who Advocate For or Against a Certain Political Goal and I have recently written a book entitled Why People Hate or Love a Certain Thing and What We Can Do About It to Fix It Forever which I am in the process of self-publishing on Amazon.com and which I posted about in a comment to your last op-ed piece online and also mailed you three letters about which you didn’t respond to, but I understand you are busy, I have a long track record of caring about issues such as these, I guess my question is how come you do or don’t support this thing which I believe in strongly which like I said in my book I think is the most important issue, I would like something to be done about it, someone should do something about this this is a really important issue it’s the most important issue in the world–”
At which point the moderator abruptly interrupts the questioner (as he has been trying to do since five seconds into the question) or the audio technician cuts the feed to the microphone. Immediately the moderator jumps in:
“Thank you for pointing that out. Next question please?”
What went so terribly awry here? And how can you avoid being the next cringe-inducing questioner? Here are five simple and hopefully helpful tips to ensure that you ask effective questions at public events:
1. Before you ask a question, make sure it’s a question.
Do you want to share some idea you think is important or do you actually have a question for the speaker? A question is something that would be written with a question mark at the end and causes your voice to go up. If your voice doesn’t go up at the end of it it’s not a question. Repeat the words you want to say to yourself before you stand up and get in line for the mic — if your voice doesn’t go up at the end of them you do not have a question in mind; please sit back down. Did your inner voice go up? Good, you have a question — please proceed to step 2.
2. You have a question. But is it relevant to ask it now?
It’s great that you actually have a question to ask. That separates you from about half the people standing in front of you in line waiting for their turn at the mic. Fortunately, you now have some time to determine if this is the right time and place to ask it. Some things to take into consideration: Is this question relevant to the themes discussed at today’s event? In particular, is it essential to ask this question of this particular speaker, or is it just something you’ve been wondering about for a while? The best questions are formulated specifically for the speaker while remaining interesting to others in attendance. Ask yourself, is this question something you think other audience members would like to hear the answer to? If you do not believe that the question is particularly related to the topics covered in today’s talk and you’re not sure if other people in the audience would be interested to hear it, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and sit back down. If after consideration you strongly believe that the question is directly relevant to today’s subject matter and that many others in the audience would be interested to hear the speaker’s response, move on to step 3.
3. You’re close to the mic. Now why do you want to ask this question?
You have an actual question that is relevant to the themes of today’s event and which you believe will be interesting to others. You are very close to asking something meaningful. Now it’s time to examine your own intentions in asking this question: Do you want to lead the speaker towards a certain answer? Put her on the spot? Show her that you disagree with something she said? And how does your intention towards the speaker relate to your larger intention towards the others in attendance? Do you want to look like you’re smarter than the speaker? Or do you want to clarify something for everyone in the room? Intention is the key to phrasing the question in the most beneficial way possible. When you know your intentions the appropriate question will become clear as well as the best way to phrase it. Do you know your intentions? If you still don’t know what you intend in asking this question it’s probably best to invent an excuse to leave the line now. If your intention in asking the question is clear — and the question itself is becoming clearer — stay in line and move on to step 4.
4. You step up to the mic. How do you ask a good question?
A good question at a public event contains three parts: Welcome, context, and question. The welcome section is a kind remark that shows respect to the speaker to whom you are directing your question. “Thank you, Senator, for this wonderful talk” does the trick. It sets the speaker up to listen closely to your question, to feel comfortable and un-threatened by you, and to prepare to actually try to answer it (as opposed to giving one of the canned responses speakers often use at these types of events). After briefly welcoming or thanking the speaker, it is time to give one example that provides context for your question. One example cannot be stressed strongly enough. This is not the time to launch into a comprehensive history of the issue you are about to address; if the speaker and audience members are unfamiliar with the backstory there is no point in asking the question anyway and no time (nor available attention) for you to establish the necessary information. This is not an appropriate time nor place for you to educate the speaker and audience on an entirely new matter. However, if the speaker and some members of the audience are familiar with the issue you are raising, one example should suffice to trigger their memory and allow them to understand fully the context of your question. A good example of providing context is: “You mentioned tonight that 20% of people in the U.S. do not have health insurance.” This provides one concrete example that clarifies for the speaker and the audience members what your question is regarding. This is all that needs to be established — anything more will actually undermine others’ interest in your question. As for the question part: Again, make sure to ask a brief, direct question, and end at the end of the question. Stop talking right after your voice has gone up and you’ve reached the question mark. There is nothing else to add. Just wait. Anything else you say will severely impair the likelihood of your question receiving a serious response. A good question, following from the example context just mentioned, would be, “Do you believe that a single-payer system would be the best way to guarantee health coverage for all Americans?” An alternate good question — although not quite as good, since it allows for a more meandering response — would be, “What do you think is the best method to guarantee health coverage for all Americans?” The way the question is phrased depends on your intentions. In this case, if your intention is to put the speaker on the spot about single-payer healthcare, the first question is best. If you truly want to know what the speaker thinks, in general, about healthcare options, the second question should work fine. But keep in mind that people who speak at public events are often well-trained in avoiding answering questions, and anything you ask that doesn’t pinpoint a single specific question will allow them to be as evasive as they wish.
5. Listening is part of asking.
You have now asked a sharp, direct question and are listening to the response. Maintain eye contact, when appropriate, and let the speaker know that you are listening. This will encourage her to give you a satisfactory reply and not avoid fully answering the question. Do not jump in or interrupt unless absolutely urgent — it’s best to let your question and the speaker’s reply speak for themselves. If you asked a powerful question there is likely little need for you to speak again.
If you made it through all five parts you can return to your seat proudly. You participated and asked a question which was relevant to today’s speaker and event, interesting to others in the audience, well-intentioned, carefully-phrased, clear, and direct — and you even listened to the response! This is the start of something big.
Anyone can speak in public, but not everyone knows how to ask a good question. You will have a much better chance of having your question heard and receiving a clear response if you practice and improve your question-asking skills.
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